What Is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga Nidra is an ancient practice used for centuries to help practitioners release stress and tension, enjoy greater physical and emotional health and connect with their deeper self.
Literally meaning “sleep”, Nidra is a form of deep relaxation that takes you to the edge of wakefulness and sleep. It is a yogic or “psychic” sleep in the form of a guided journey from the waking state to an experience of profound relaxation and peace.
In this article, we’ll explore what Yoga Nidra is, how it works, and how to practice it, as well as discussing some of the many benefits it has to offer you.
Why Practice Yoga Nidra?
Yoga Nidra is an ancient yoga practice known as yogic or psychic sleep. This is a form of meditation where you to enter a state of deep relaxation.
Nidra is a guided practice consisting of a series of steps starting from an awareness of the body and breath through stages of creative imagery to a state of complete repose where you can relax your body and quieten your mind
Yoga Nidra is different from normal sleep. It is a “liminal” state at the very edge of waking consciousness, just before you enter sleep.
Deep relaxation is essential for good health, allowing your body and mind to recharge and reset. Regular practice of Yoga Nidra has been linked to numerous health benefits, from stress-reduction and improved sleep, to lower background levels of inflammation, resetting of pain sensitivity, and significant enhancements in cardio-vascular, digestive and other vital areas of health and wellbeing
What Is The Difference Beteen Yoga Nidra And Meditation?
Yoga Nidra is often described as a form of meditation. While there are similarities between Nidra and traditional meditation, there are also some key differences.
Where meditation seeks to quieten the mind while staying fully alert, Nidra focuses on deep relaxation, a state of being where the body and mind are completely at ease.
Traditional meditation is a discipline. It calls for focus and attention. Whether you are giving your attention to a single sound, image or idea, or nurturing the habit of staying present to the totality of sensations, thoughts and feelings inhabiting the here-and-now, there is effort to maintain your focus. The effort is gentle, patient and kind, but it is there. Meditation is normally practiced sitting to encourage mental alertness
Nidra lets you relax into a trance-like state close to sleep. It encourages you to let go of effort and is usually practiced lying down in a totally relaxed position. Nidra will yield its effects whether you remain awake or nod off into a snooze. As you follow the teacher’s voice, their instructions will be registered and processed whatever your level of conscious awareness
How Does Yoga Nidra Work?
Yoga Nidra brings about many of its benefits by stimulating the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system regulates the activity of your internal organs to produce an orchestrated response appropriate for a given situation. The system consists of a flight-fight sympathetic portion in response to challenges and a rest-and-digest parasympathetic portion associated with safety and relaxation. The two systems work together, see-saw function, to produce a balanced effect (autonomic tone) appropriate to an ever changing physical, social and psychological environment
The stress response is essential not only for survival, but also to motivate you to be active and pursue your goals. Because we modern humans spend so much of our time in a state of arousal, our bodies use up resources with little time to replenish them and to repair the damage caused. As a result, we pay by suffering the diseases of our modern age: heart disease, obesity, diabetes and malignancy among others
It therefore becomes a wellbeing imperative to make time and space for activities which actively encourage rest-and-digest.
Thie parasympathetic system works largely through a complex, multi-functional nerve known as the Vagus (wanderer) to bring about rest and and repair, helping to reduce stress and tension in the body. When you practice Yoga Nidra, you’re able to activate this response to reduce stress and tension, reset all your vital functions and boost your total physical and mental health.
The 5 Stages Of Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra is a structured, systematic practice. It is usually led by a teacher who may be physically present, in-person or on-line, or via a recorded script. Though there are numerous variations, Nidra practice falls into five main stages: following an initial preparation, the focus passes from body and breath onto various stages of imagery which eventually settle into the stillness of Nidra
Preparing To Practice Nidra
- The practice begins with an initial preparation, where you’ll be invited to establish a conducive environment and a relaxed position to let you turn your attention inwards.
- * Next, you state an intention (Sanskrit: sanklpa) for the practice. This may be achieve the deepest relaxation possible, or heal an ailment, or something that you would like to see happen to you, or some other person or group of people. It should be imbued with great feeling, and express a deep heart-felt desire. Your sankalpa will take the form of a specific phrase which you actively repeat one or more times.
Not everyone practices sankalpa. Swami Satyananda, one of the earliest teachers of Nidra in the West, places great emphasis on sankalpa, considering a central reason for practicing Nidra. Others may prefer to skip the practice.
Check out this short video about sankalpa by Yoga Nidra Teacher Leela Miller from yoopod.com
Yoga Nidra Practice
- The first is a stage of rotation of awareness around the body. You may visualize, feel (sense) or even name the various body parts as you try to connect with the life of your body
- A stage of breath awareness follows. Here you will practice various ways of connecting with the breath. A common method is to count the exhalations from 10 to 1, repeatedly
- Next you’re invited to work with feelings and sensations. This is most often approached using pairs of opposites, such as heat and cold, heaviness and lightness, happiness and sadness. The practice encourages you to accept the pleasant and unpleasant with equanimity and is believed to balance and harmonize the two brain hemispheres.
Working with opposites can help with trauma resolution. On the other hand, the practice may also trigger an acute traumatic state. In such instances it’s essential to desist and consider working through this under the guidance of a professional therapist.
- The fourth stage is one of visualization. Here you’ll create a specific set of images or experiences which foster a positive mental state. You may for example set a scene where you feel safe and able to completely relax, or follow a guided journey involving imagery. such as a feeling of safety,
- In the fifth and last step of Nidra you let go of imagery to watch the space immediately in front of you, observing it as a blank screen. Onto this screen, images may form and dissolve spontaneously, or it may remain a silent, empty space where you can enjoy the deepest level of peace and tranquility
A negotiated return using the breath and gentle movements concludes the practice
Understanding the Stages Of Nidra
Nidra, And The 5 Sheaths
Yoga Nidra is structured as a journey through the five layers of being. Ancient yogic texts (Taittiriya and Mandukya Upanishads) describe human beings as composed of three bodies consisting of five layers or sheaths:
- food sheath (sanskrit: Annamaya kosha) – the physical body
- energy sheath (Pranamaya kosha) – the vital force. You may be more familiar with prana as the chi of chinese medicine, from which it is indistinguishable. Expressed through the breath, though not itself the breath, prana is sometimes referred to as the vital air
- mental – emotional sheath (Manomaya kosha) – that aspect of the mind concerned with thinking and feeling
- intellectual – knowledge sheath (Vijñānamaya kosha) – the seat of higher intelligence including insight and creativity
- blissful sheath (Anandamaya kosha) – the deepest layer of individual being, it may be associated with the unconsciousness of deep sleep, or the superconscious state of spiritual enlightenment
The five steps of Yoga Nidra take us on a journey through these layers of being, from the purely physical all the way to the bliss of stillness
Nidra Practice Summary
Facilitates the practice
Clarifies and manifests your goals and values
Embodiment takes you from thinking to sensing and anchors you in the here-and-now
Works through the breath to calm the mind
Pairs of opposites
Improves emotinal balance and resilience
thinking / feeling body
Nurtures positive mental attitudes and connects you to your creative source
creative / intuitive body
Lets you abide in the healing balm of true peace
causal / blissful body
Clarify and helps manifest your intention
Helps you bring the benefits of Nidra to your daily activities
Benefits Of Practising Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra has a huge array of benefits, both physical and psychological. Nidra practices offer you a powerful tool to both down-regulate your stress response and also to help you foster health-promoting positive attitudes.
These mental states lead to a reduction in sympathetic fight-flight reponses and circulating stress hormones, while actively enhancing rest-and-repair activity. The result is a deeply healing state where your body can rest and repair and your mind can release stress and trauma and enjoy deep calm.
Yoga, mindfulness and deep relaxation, including Nidra, have been shown to exert a powerful and positive influence on the most common causes of illness and mortality of our day including
optimization of cardiac and respiratory functions
a lowering of blood pressure
reduction of bad and increase in good blood cholesterol
down-regulation of inflammation
improved digestion, bowel transit and elimination
more effective stress management concurrent with a reduction in stress hormones
improvement in mood, including relief from anxiety and depression
similar improvements in cognitive brain functions, including enhanced mental clarity and increased memory
and, of course, improvements in sleep
How To Practice Yoga Nidra
Before you practice Yoga Nidra, it’s important to prepare your body and mind.
Wear comfortable clothing, and make sure that the room is quiet and free from distractions. You can use props, such as blankets or pillows, to make yourself more comfortable.
If you intend to include an intention (sankalpa) in your practice, reflect on what you would like this to be, and turn it into a definite short phrase. Use this same phrase word for word each time you practice.
It’s a good idea to practice at the same time each day, as this can help to establish a routine and make it easier to relax.
A Starter Yoga Nidra Practice
1: Body Scan
Here, then, is a guided Yoga Nidra for you to try. This is a short taster practice involving a body scan to take you from thinking to listening and sensing.
You’ll find links to more complete Nidra scripts in the resources section below
Yoga Nidra Resources: Classes and Free Scripts
If you’re interested in practicing Yoga Nidra, there are many resources and courses available. You can find guided practices online, or attend a Yoga Nidra class at a local studio. There are also many books and courses available that can help you to learn more about this ancient practice.
Here are some YouTube recordings from three distinct Nidra schools for you to try